Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Dwight D. Codr


Protestant, Usury, Providentialism


In an Internet postscript to his 1989 history of usury, Norman Jones remarks that "by the eighteenth century the moral issue of usury was no longer of interest to most Protestant thinkers. In practice lending at interest with collateral had become normal, as had deposit banking:'1 Indeed, usury itself was of relatively minor importance to economic theorization and debate in the eighteenth century when compared to the financial debates of the period Jones's work covers, 1571-1624, spanning Elizabeth's Act Against Usury and the Usury Act of 1624. During the earlier period, usury was not simply linked to an emerging system of credit and crown finance, but was pivotal to the course of financial history. Conceptually linked to insurance, annuities, and securities speculation, and energizing economic practices ranging from foreign investment to regional trade by providing financing and liquidity, usury was the center of a discursive constellation, and one's opinion of it oriented him or her in relation to all orbiting terms and values. By the time we get to the eighteenth century, the necessity of moneylending was established, its excesses supposedly curtailed, and its practice institutionally legitimated through parliamentary action, most notably the 1694 founding of the Bank of England. Moreover, while anti-usury polemic persisted in print culture, attacks on usury per se were either coded attacks on affiliate institutions and practices (and not indictments of lending for interest as such) or were the eccentric plaints of an idealistic minority on the Protestant fringe. Gone were the days of paying serious attention to writers like Miles Mosse, whose unequivocally condemnatory "arraignment and conviction of usury" (1595) set the tone and terms for attacks on nascent modern financial culture in the seventeenth century.2 By the time we get to 1700, however, it seems that the usury problem has disappeared.